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The second major is upon us, as the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is set to host the PGA Championship. The weather woes of 2012 likely won't be replicated, and players will be studying the wind patterns to see when the gusts will blow - and more importantly, from which direction.
Rory McIlroy returns as the betting favorite, fresh off his win at Quail Hollow and nine years after an eight-shot romp along the South Carolina shore. He's followed closely by a decorated pack of pursuers, including Jordan Spieth who will take his fifth crack at rounding out the career Grand Slam by lifting the Wanamaker Trophy.
It feels like a wide-open affair, with several players trending in the right direction heading into the heart of the summer season. Here's a look at some of the players I have my eye on this week, including a well-known American who at some point has to break out of his victory drought. Right?
To Win (odds via PointsBet Sportsbook)
Tony Finau (+4000): I am steeling my stomach and going back to the well on Finau, who has been a marvel of consistency in some of the biggest events. Eight top-10 finishes in his last 12 major starts, including a T-10 finish at Augusta, indicate he should be in the mix over the weekend. A rough last few weeks have inflated his price, but I feel like this is the type of venue where he could shine: the longest course in major championship history, topping out at nearly 7,900 yards, will put an added emphasis on length off the tee. The seashore paspalum grass on the greens should slow things down and potentially allow players with a more inconsistent putter to remain in the mix than faster surfaces.
Finau's lone win came way back in 2016 in Puerto Rico, another oceanside layout with paspalum greens. He also had a top-10 finish back at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, another Pete Dye design that draws favorable comparisons to Kiawah. Trusting him over an 8-foot putt that has to drop is the difficult part, but at this price I believe there's some value that this could be the week, and the course, to get him over the finish line after years of stellar play leading to near-misses on the biggest stages.
Bubba Watson (+10000): The southpaw has a pair of green jackets in his closet, and there might still be time to add a third major title at age 42. Watson played well here back in 2011, finishing T-11, and he lost in a playoff at the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits. He's beginning to trend in the right direction, as well: four straight finishes of T-26 or better, including top-20s at both Innisbrook and Quail Hollow in his last two starts.
Early reports indicate that tournament officials will utilize a wide array of tee boxes this week, in part to calibrate the course for the wind conditions of a given day. The more options, the more I like a player with immense creativity like Watson. He'll be able to stand over the ball and trust both his swing and his number, whether the day-to-day difference is five yards or 40. He's got the length with driver and keeps it in play, ranking ninth this season in SG: Off-the-Tee and 20th in SG: Tee-to-Green. He fits the Finau mold of a player whose weakness is usually found on the greens, but this week the course conditions might help to mitigate those shortcomings and give him another chance at the hardware.
Matt Kuchar (+15000): Another aging American whose triple-digit price feels a bit too high. Kuchar fell off the map over in recent months, going from 16th in the world when the pandemic break resumed in June to 54th after a missed cut at The Players in March. But he has turned it around since, with four finishes of T-18 or better in his last five starts including a run to the semifinals in the WGC Match Play.
Kuchar is another player who tends to gain ground on the field when the wind picks up, and he has won on Dye designs at both TPC Sawgrass and Harbour Town. He'll have some work to do to keep pace off the tee, ranking 179th on Tour in driving distance this season. But he has never been a long hitter, and we saw a few unexpected names on the 2012 PGA leaderboard here. Kuchar's tee-to-green game has allowed him to contend on other lengthy PGA venues like Bethpage Black (T-9 in 2019) and Whistling Straits (T-7 in 2015). It may feel like his duel with Spieth at Royal Birkdale was his last best shot at a major, but I'm certainly intrigued to get him here at a sky-high price with ample upside.
Top Finishes (odds via PointsBet)
Daniel Berger (+300 top-10 finish): I was high on Berger last week at the Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. A final-round 64 nearly completed an improbable comeback, and it certainly shortened some of the numbers we're seeing this week for the four-time Tour winner. But I'm still bullish on his prospects, given that he ranks inside the top 25 this season in every major Strokes Gained category outside of chipping. Berger has been in the major mix before, notably playing in the final pairing at Shinnecock during the 2018 U.S. Open, and he finished T-13 in this event last year at TPC Harding Park. He has flown somewhat under the radar since his win at Pebble Beach back in February, but it's not because of a drop in results: his last five starts have netted four finishes of T-18 or better. That outlier was a notable one (MC at the Masters) but I think it's more the exception than the rule. With a ball flight that can successfully battle windy conditions, I expect him to be in the mix once again this weekend.
Emiliano Grillo (+800 top-10 finish): The Argentine has three top-10 finishes this season: Mayakoba (paspalum greens), Punta Cana (paspalum greens) and Harbour Town (another Dye design in South Carolina). Good enough for me. Grillo is third on Tour this season in GIR percentage, which means he should be able to create a steady supply of birdie opportunities even if the winds blow. He's coming off a T-14 finish two weeks ago at Quail Hollow and has made five of six career cuts in the PGA, including a pair of top-25 finishes. He's familiar with the demands of an oceanside course, having also had some success in Puerto Rico, and feels like a sleeper pick that could have some utility in a number of markets.
Ian Poulter (+300 top-30 finish): The Englishman has a pretty formidable record on Pete Dye designs, including a T-3 finish at Kiawah in this event nine years ago. Poulter has enjoyed similar success at other Dye layouts like TPC Sawgrass and Harbour Town, and the 45-year-old is coming in with some solid form. He missed the cut at Quail Hollow, when he brought in his 16-year-old son as a fill-in caddie, but prior to that he had finished T-26 or better in three of his last four starts including a T-26 showing at the Masters. Dating back to last year, he has been inside the top 30 in three of his last four majors. I like him to lean on his wealth of experience to develop a strategy to attack this course, similar to what we saw from him in 2012.
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